Lawyer Job Satisfaction and Comparing Downward

In law school, we learn about model answers, class ranking and, for lack of a better term, perfection. It usually seems to be about striving to perform better and comparing to others ahead of ourselves, no matter where we are placed – or place ourselves – in the ranking queue. Yet, along comes work by Nancy Levit and Doug Linder, two professors of law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, who examined lawyer happiness. While many people think that money would have a huge impact on happiness, that apparently was just not accurate according to a reported study. But other factors mattered. What struck me about this exploration, in particular, was the finding that “comparing downward” was a good way to promote happiness.

The way I understand it, a downward comparison means to appreciate what we have and see the hundreds, thousands and more people who have less than we do, not those people/lawyers who have more. That would be comparing upward – to the friend at the more prestigious firm, the other friend who is ranked higher in six different categories at school, or to the person who just received the prestigious clerkship you applied for as well.

I know I compare upward quite a bit. I went to Harvard, but was not a top performer (no summa for me), did not get the top clerkship, job, etc. It actually is pragmatically useful, though, to recognize the advantages to comparing down. I really like and use a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that does indeed implicitly compare down:

 “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

This quote is posted in my office and at home, for good reason.

What Makes Your Subject Distinctive?

As law schools continue to develop their learning outcomes, an important question we all should consider is, “what makes my course distinctive?”  For example, in my research on assessment in legal research courses, I was struck by how much the analytical and problem solving skills developed by legal research instruction are the same as those developed by many other courses in the law school curriculum.  That led me to ask, “what makes legal research instruction distinctive?”  The answer was not simply, as an outsider might suggest, that legal research classes teach tools for finding law (digests, Westlaw, etc.).  Rather, I was struck that legal research instruction is distinctive in the extent to which an effective legal researcher must have an appreciation for the power of taxonomies, must exercise imagination in the context of realistic boundaries of time, cost, and purpose, must be able to ask for help, and must develop strong metacognitive practices (to continually question “is this process working?”).  The difference is of degree rather than kind of course, but it is a distinctive difference nonetheless.

Given the narrow focus of legal education, it seems that this question of distinctiveness or “value added” is the most critical question I can ask in planning my courses.  Not that the distinctive outcomes of my courses should be the sole, or even dominant outcomes.  Legal education outcomes require an iterative process and cross-curricular experiences for students to become competent and to enable transfer of learning to new settings.  Yet, understanding what makes my outcomes distinctive forces me to justify my outcomes and consider their connections with other law school outcomes.

So what makes my outcomes in Professional Responsibility distinctive?  Certainly the identity of the anticipated uses of the doctrine we are learning leads me to choose to emphasize professional identity formation outcomes as important if not distinctive.  In most law school courses, students are learning the law to serve others and are encouraged to use, interpret, and advocate about the law to achieve a client’s objectives.  In Professional Responsibility, the students will be using the law to advise themselves.  My outcomes include expecting that students will be able to clarify their observational standpoint when considering issues of professional ethics; recognize that self interest clouds judgment and ways to gain more objectivity; and differentiate the approaches to interpretation of law that one might use to advocate for a client regarding past conduct from approaches that are wise, ethical, and effective when interpreting the law to guide our own future conduct.  Finding effective methods to assess students development of these perspective is a challenge but I have found that simply asking students to read cases of attorney discipline and ask, “what went wrong with the attorney’s thinking?” is a good place to start.

What makes your course outcomes distinctive?  How has that led to distinctive assessment practices?

Building on Best Practices now available as eBook

Are you trying to:

  • Develop a meaningful law school mission statement?
  • Understand new accreditation requirements, learning goals, and outcomes assessment?
  •  Expand your experiential offerings?  Decide whether to use modules or courses?  An on-site clinic, an externship, or community partnership?
  •  Teach ALL of your students in the most effective ways, using a full range of teaching methods?
  • Add to your curriculum more of the professional identity, leadership, intercultural, inter-professional and other knowledge, skills, and values sought by 21st century legal employers?
  • Lead thoughtfully in the face of the challenges facing legal education today?

These and other topics are addressed in Building on Best Practices:  Transforming Legal Education in a Changing World,  now available in ebook format from LexisNexis at no charge.

The print version is not yet out.  LEXIS-NEXIS is taking advance orders for $50, plus shipping.  BUT we understand that they will make one copy available to every US legal educator for free upon on request.  Details on this and international availability still to come.

Thanks, and congratulations, to book project sponsor Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA), the more than fifty legal educators who participated as authors, and the countless others who assisted as readers and in numerous other ways.

And, a huge shout-out to my wonderful and talented co-editors, Lisa Radke Bliss, Carrie Wilkes Kaas, and Antoinette Sedillo Lopez.

Journal of Experiential Learning Summaries By: Myra Berman

The second issue of Touro Law Center’s Journal of Experiential Learning will be uploaded online prior to the start of the Fall 2015 semester. This issue is devoted to incubator and residency programs and their contribution to legal education, particularly to the post-JD part of the educational continuum. The creator of the law school incubator movement, Fred Rooney of Touro Law, is the guest editor for this edition. Be sure to check the website, for the latest uploads. Articles for the Incubator & Residency issue include

Incubator Development at Home and Abroad: Anecdotal Stories from the Trenches

Fred Rooney

Law School Based Incubators and Access to Justice – Perspectives from Deans

Patricia Salkin, Ellen Suni, Neils Schaumann and Mary Lu Bilek

Incubating Community Law Practices: A Model for Lawyer Training & Access to Law

Luz Herrera

Innovate, Collaborate, & Serve: Louisiana’s “LIFT” – A Legal Incubator and Accelerator Program Startup Guide

Amy Duncan

The Pro Bono Requirement in Incubator Programs: A Reflection on Structuring Pro Bono Work for Program Attorneys

Davida Finger

Creating a Post-Graduate Incubator Program through a Law School-Bar Association Partnership

Robyn L. Meadows, J. Palmer Lockard and Elizabeth G. Simcox

A Custom Tailored Form of Post-Graduate Legal Training: The Rhode Island Center for Justice

Robert McCreanor

Implementing Psychological Resilience Training in Law Incubators

Mark Heekin

An Examination of the Special Role Career Service Professionals Can Play in the Development and Success of Law School Incubator Programs

Sumana Wolk and Erica Edwards-Oneal

The third issue focuses on pre-JD experiential learning programs, many of which are pipeline programs offered by undergraduate institutions. The guest editor of that issue is Diana D. Juettner, J.D. Chair of the Department of Social Sciences at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York. If you or a colleague would like to contribute, please contact Coordinating Editor, Associate Dean Myra Berman at

DOE Gainful Employment Rule Affects For-Profit Law Schools

Federal district courts in New York and the District of Columbia have rejected challenges to the Department of Education’s “gainful employment rule”. A recent story in The American Lawyer, “New Rule Spells Trouble for For-Profit Law Schools”, explains how the DOE gainful employment rule will likely affect for-profit law schools. The gainful employment rule, which is based on graduates’ annual incomes and their discretionary incomes, requires a for-profit school’s graduates to have debt payments that are 8% or less of their annual incomes, or 20% or less of their discretionary incomes. A school fails the test if student debt payments exceed 12% of annual incomes or 30% of discretionary incomes. A school is considered “in the zone” if loan payments of graduates are greater than or equal to 12% of their annual incomes, or payments are greater than 10% but less than or equal to 30% of discretionary incomes. A for-profit school becomes ineligible for federal loans if it fails both the annual income and discretionary income tests in any two of three years, or if it fails both tests or is in the zone for four years. The story also explains that graduates’ enrollment in income-based repayment programs is not considered in the government’s application of the new rule. The American Lawyer story contains tables that project how the rule could be applied based on available debt, income, and employment information for graduates at the six for-profit law schools. The DOE gainful employment rule goes into effect July 1, 2015.

Law School Curriculum Review & Reform: Lessons Learned

In 2012, my dean asked me to chair a review our curriculum at the University of Tennessee College of Law. He asked our committee to consider the current three-year curriculum in light of our learning outcomes. It sounded like an overwhelming job.

During the first year of our curriculum review, I remember reading the book Reforming Legal Education: Law Schools at the Crossroads. Michael Hunter Schwartz and Jeremiah Ho wrote a great chapter titled Curriculum Reforms at Washburn University School of Law.

I would describe Schwartz and Ho’s chapter in two ways: (1) full of practical suggestions about the process for reviewing curriculum and considering reform; and (2) terrifying.

I stole many of the practical, process-related suggestions from their chapter. We had a committee retreat where we spent an uninterrupted day discussing the curriculum. Committee members went door-to-door and talked to each faculty member about the curriculum and possible changes. The committee developed two proposals for curriculum reform and discussed these proposals with the full faculty. I am sure there are other ideas we borrowed from Schwartz and Ho.

The terrifying part of Schwartz and Ho’s chapter was this line: “[O]ne might conclude that, after nearly three years of work, Washburn’s curriculum reform efforts have been unsuccessful.”

Three years? We may do this for three years and feel it wasn’t a success?

Of course, Schwartz and Ho go on to explain that there were successes in the three-year process. (The Washburn faculty reached a consensus on key issues and made progress toward some important goals detailed in the chapter). But it was daunting for me to think that the process would be difficult and might take three years.

In 2015, the University of Tennessee College of Law faculty adopted a package of significant changes to the 1L curriculum. While the substance of those changes is important, I think it is also important to contribute to Schwartz and Ho’s discussion about the process. So here are a few of the lessons I learned about the process of curriculum review and reform over the past three years.

1) Three Years is a Good Start. When we started, three years sounded like a long time to work on a curriculum review. I now know that three years of curriculum review passes in the blink of an eye. We needed that much time to understand our curriculum, talk to faculty, alumni and students, research what was happening elsewhere, create proposals for change, seek more input, and generate new proposals.

2) Less is More. Our committee accomplished something in three years because we narrowed the focus. Even though our original committee charge was to review the entire curriculum, we ended up focusing on the first year curriculum. That was a more manageable project. Also related to “less is more,” after two years we realized the committee was spread too thin. Our dean originally gave the curriculum review charge to the Academic Standards & Curriculum Committee. For two years that committee juggled the curriculum review and the regular business of Academic Standards. In the third year, our dean created a separate task force to focus solely on the curriculum review. That change made us much more efficient in year three and allowed us to reach a faculty vote on a package of proposals.

3) Seek Input from Faculty, Alumni, and Students Multiple Times, in Multiple Settings. Throughout the three years of our curriculum review, we talked to faculty, alumni, and students. When we met with alumni and students, we gave them the chance to address the room, answer questions anonymously (with clickers), and respond in writing to questions. We often continued these discussions on the phone, by email, and in person. We were able to compile all of this input and share it with the faculty. The committee spent even more time gathering ideas from the faculty in one-on-one meetings, in multiple forums, in small group sessions, and in many informal conversations over the course of three years. Seeking input in all of these settings helped us learn from all of our stakeholders and resulted in a variety of suggestions.

4) Compromise Can Lead to Something Better. Near the end of our second year of the curriculum review, the committee presented the faculty with two packages of possible reforms to the 1L curriculum. Discussing and debating the merits of these proposals helped the committee see potential problems we had missed and opportunities for meaningful change. With that information, we met with small groups of faculty to generate ideas about new classes and other innovations. In these meetings, members of the faculty often suggested they wanted to take the lead in making a change or teaching something new. As the third year came to a close, the faculty approved a package of 1L curriculum changes that was substantially better than what the committee had suggested at the end of year two.

5) Curriculum Review “Success.” Three years ago, it was unnerving to read that Schwartz and Ho thought we might not find curriculum reform “success” in three years. But I now know that is a good thing. Curriculum review and reform does not have to be perfect, because we are never done. Curriculum review should be an ongoing process. This allows us to identify what is working and determine what we will do next as we prepare students for practice.

Lawyers as Leaders

Leadership courses can prepare law students for the leadership roles they will assume as they serve their clients, law offices, and communities.

The University of Tennessee College of Law’s Institute for Professional Leadership offers courses and programming aimed at developing students’ leadership skills and professional values. Doug Blaze directs Tennessee’s program and has co-taught the course “Lawyers as Leaders” for several years. The course integrates readings on leadership, class discussions, and guest appearances by lawyers from various practices. Blaze says that students have described the course as “one of the most meaningful and valuable” courses that they took in law school.

Stanford Law School’s Deborah Rhode wrote the book Lawyers as Leaders and teaches a course titled “Law, Leadership, and Social Change.” Stanford’s course addresses the responsibilities and challenges of leaders and considers topics including: leadership styles, organizational dynamics, conflict management, innovation, diversity, and ethical responsibilities.

At Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, the Program on Law and Leadership consists of seven initiatives that “make leadership an integral part of the law school experience.” These initiatives include workshops, a speaker series, a dean’s roundtable, collaboration and partnerships, scholarships, a conversation series, and various courses. Ohio State’s “Lawyers as Leaders” class “is designed to help students understand the hallmarks of skillful leadership and management.” The course combines theory, case studies, and simulations.

Other schools with notable leadership programs and courses include Columbia Law School, Elon University School of Law, and University of Minnesota Law School.

These programs recognize that all lawyers need to be prepared for the leadership roles they will inevitably play in their personal and professional lives. Tennessee’s Doug Blaze says, “We want to prepare lawyers who will make a positive difference in the profession and in their communities.”


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